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April 7, 2011

Movie Review: Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Here is a welcome addition to my DVD collection from HD Cinema Classics: an HD re-master of Phil Karlson’s taught and tough late noir, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL. Coming at the end of the noir cycle, it is one of several tough-minded pictures of the early to mid fifties with the word “Confidential” in the title. Although I am fond of Jack Arnold’s HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, I think it’s fair to say this is the best of them. It is full of surprises, edgy brutality and moral ambiguities. It deserves to be better known than it is, which is why this new release is so very welcome.

Buy Kansas City Confidential on DVD
Karlson was a work-a-day director of Hollywood programmers who always brought some honesty and style to his work. I suppose he is most know today for the best of the “good ol’ boy” revenge movies, WALKING TALL. But he was also responsible for Dean Martin’s THE SILENCERS, the memorable ALEXANDER THE GREAT television pilot with William Shatner, and KID GALAHAD, with Elvis Presley. In his early career he directed several hard-hitting crime dramas like the excellent THE PHOENIX CITY STORY and 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE. And, although the payoff doesn’t quite satisfy on the level of its terse, nail-biting build-up, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL stands with those as among the best of Karlson’s output. In many ways it plays like an early dry-run for RESERVOIR DOGS and may well have been one of Tarantino’s influences for that masterful crime drama.

Foster, an ex-cop turned criminal (Preston Foster), gathers a gang of three small-time crooks (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef) to pull off the perfect bank robbery. All the men wear masks so none of them knows who they are working with. But Foster needs a patsy to pin it on, so he frames an innocent flower truck driver, Joe (John Payne), an ex-soldier who once did some time for a minor offense. But Joe is nobody’s fool, and choosing him as his patsy proves to be Foster’s undoing. Joe is finally released for lack of evidence after some very brutal police beatings (this is a very early crime film to question whether the police are any less corrupt than the criminals they pursue), and goes off on his own to unravel the threads and clear his own name. Strangely, for a film with an American city named in the title, the last half of the picture plays out at a resort in Mexico. The denouement gets a touch maudlin, and may have been a concession to the censors, but as in most good noirs, it’s the journey to that inevitable conclusion that counts. And this one kept me riveted all the way there.
The black and white photography here is crisp and beautiful. It eschews the long shadows and neo-expressionism of more traditional noirs for a down-and-dirty realism that says much about the direction films were going at that time.
However, I think the attraction here for most hard-boiled movie fans will be the cast. There are no major stars in this world, coloring the landscape of reality with their own particular brand name. This is the realm of the character actor; those reliable, hard-edged guys who populate the shadows in larger budgeted so-called “A” pictures. The three thugs themselves are among the best. Jack Elam, skeletal and rock faced, has seldom been better as a deep-down vulnerable dope who wants to define himself with his craggy chin. Lee Van Cleef – weasel-smart and loyal only to the skin under his own shirt. And Neville Brand, a mountainous deadpan, the least developed of the three characters, but an unpredictable, fully-present entity whenever he is on-screen. As the conflicted mastermind, the always reliable Preston Foster walks a moral tightrope with infinite control. And in the lead, John Payne, a minor actor in many minor movies (most known probably for MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET and DODSWORTH) gives the finest performances of his career. He is leather-tough in his singular purpose to clear his name, his unflinching confidence underscored by an innate human decency.
If you are a fan of noir, or gritty black and white dramas, check this one out. You will not be disappointed.

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